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Royals, Cougars to be familiar foes down WHL stretch drive

Of the Royals’ 20 remaining regular-season games, seven are against the Cougars
Victoria Royals’ Alex Thacker ends up on the floor after being hit by Prince George Cougars’ Blake Eastman during their WHL game in Victoria in November. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The road to the Western Hockey League playoffs for the Victoria Royals quite literally goes through Prince George.

Of the Royals’ 20 remaining regular-season games, seven are against the Cougars, including tonight and Saturday night at the CN Centre.

“It’s the final turn into the back stretch and we have to put our foot down on the gas and charge,” said Victoria general manager and head coach Dan Price.

There will be a lot of bus ­pedals pushed and gas burned as the teams follow up with three games remaining in Victoria and two more back in Prince George.

It might be safe to say that how go these games against the Cougars, so goes the Royals season. Victoria (14-29-5) is tied with Kelowna for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Western Conference, but the Rockets have four games in hand.

The Royals and Rockets do not meet again, so that’s eight potential extra points for Kelowna that Victoria has no control over, and can only scoreboard watch.

What the Royals can control are the 14 points left on offer against the Cougars.

It’s not going to be easy, even with the Cougars (19-21-4) massively underachieving.

This was supposed to be the season in which Prince George popped, especially with the touted pair of Koehn Ziemmer and Riley Heidt the 20th and 26th ranked North American skaters, respectively, for the 2023 NHL draft.

The duo leads the Cougars, with Ziemmer on 26 goals and 62 points and Heidt 19 goals and 60 points.

“They are not just talented but are gritty and get under your skin,” said Price.

The Cougars lead the season series against the Royals 2-0 and are nine points ahead of Victoria with four games in hand.

“These remaining seven contests against the Cougars are four-point games,” said Price.

But Prince George looks to be a road too far for Victoria at this point.

The real race for the final playoff berth is against Kelowna, which meets the Vancouver Giants tonight. Having played four games more than both the Rockets and Cougars does not put Victoria in an enviable position.

As longshot as it might be to catch the Cougars, the Royals at least control their destiny in the seven games remaining against Prince George.

All they can do about Kelowna is look at the out-of-town scoreboard and hope.

Another faint target could be Vancouver, with the Giants nine points ahead of Victoria with two games in hand. The Royals have four game remaining against the Giants, which is currently not enough to catch Vancouver even with a sweep. Any way you look at it, the math is closing in on the Royals.

Victoria closes out the weekend road trip Sunday in Kamloops against the B.C. Division-leading Blazers.

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